31: Gallipoli Pt. 7


The troops had also been on a hell of journey, but now they found themselves suck on the peninsula without any real hope of breaking out. Winter was coming down on them soon and while it was really hot in the summer it would also be really cold in the winter. So something had to be done and that something was evacuation.



Hello everyone and welcome to history of the great war episode 31, our seventh, and final episode on the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. The last 7 episodes, including this one, will be about 5 hours or so of Dardanelles and Gallipoli content, so it has been a long journey. The troops had also been on a hell of journey, but now they found themselves suck on the peninsula without any real hope of breaking out. Winter was coming down on them soon and while it was really hot in the summer it would also be really cold in the winter. So something had to be done and that something was evacuation. It would take a while before the British leadership would also come to this conclusion and today we will look at how they got to that conclusion before discussing the evacuations themselves. From December 28th to January 8th the beaches would be evacuated. I’m not saying anything controversial here when I say that they were the best planned and executed actions of the entire campaign.

The first step in the path to evacuation was the withdrawl of the French 2nd and British 10th Divisions who were sent to Salonika to reinforce the troops there. The Turkish defenders now had an equal number of troops as the British so any offensive was near impossible. And so the men sat, and weeks turned into months and it became obvious no more offensive actions would be launched. If this was a movie this is the point that would be one of those time elapsing montages. At some point people started asking why the men were still there at all. On October 11th Kitchener asked Hamilton how many men he thought he would lose during an evacuation, Hamilton claimed that it might be up to half of his forces. This number should, and was, taken with a bit of a grain of salt because Hamilton was completely against the evacuation under any circumstances. This would be one of the primary reasons that on October the 14th he was relieved of his command. Hamilton had been in charge of the Mediterrannean Expeditionary force for 8 months, the operation hadn’t been a success but how much of that failure was or wasn’t Hamilton’s fault is still hotly debated. He certainly made mistakes, but who knows if somebody else would have done better. Regardless of whether or not it was his fault Hamilton’s military career was now over and it would fall to somebody else to get the troops off the peninsula. That person would be Lieutenant General Sir Charles Monro. When he was tapped to become Hamilton’s replacement Monro was a commander on the Western Front and he was known as a hard, practical man who had risen through the ranks from first commanding a Division in 1914 to commanding a whole army by October 1915. Monro would arrive in Gallipoli on October the 30th and would commence a whirlwind tour of all of the positions that would take him just a few days. Here is a long quote from Monro’s evaluation of the situation “The beaches and piers upon which they depended for all requirements in personnel and material were exposed to registered and observed artillery fire. Our entrenchments were dominated almost throughout by the Turks. The possible artillery positions were insufficient and defective. The force, in short, held a line possessing every possible military defect. The position was without depth, the communications were insecure and dependent on the weather. No means existed for the concealment and deployment of fresh troops destined for the offensive – whilst the Turks enjoyed full powers of observation, abundant artillery positions, and they had been given the time to supplement the natural advantages which the position presented by all the devices at the disposal of the field engineer” After his tour he would then write to Kitchener “Since we could not hope to achieve any purpose by remaining on the Peninsula, the appalling cost to the nation involved in consequence of embarking on an overseas expedition with no base available for the rapid transit of stores, supplies and personnel, made it urgent that we should divert the troops locked up on the Peninsula to a more useful theatre. Since therefore I could see no military advantage in our continued occupation of positions on the Peninsula I telegraphed to your Lordship that in my opinion the evacuation of the Peninsula should be taken in hand.” Kitchener still wasn’t convinced that evacuation was the answer, although he wasn’t as opposed to the idea as Hamilton had been. The Dardanelles Committee was similarly not convinced and decided to have Kitchener visit the peninsula first hand to give his evaluation of the situation. On November 22nd Kitchener would arrive and begin his tour of the positions. What he found shocked him. Almost as soon as the tour ended he began to discuss the details of evacuation with Monro. He also sent a telegram back home recommending a partial evacuation as soon as possible. At this point he plan was to retain forces at Helles to assist the Royal Navy in any future operations, the troops from ANZAC and SUVLA would be taken off though. Kitchener also began to look at some other operations in the middle east to try to distract the region from the evacuation. The Dardanelles Committee, even at this point didn’t immediately approve the decision. The gravity of the situation, and the possibilities for thousands of casualties in the evacuation made them hesitate. While they hesitated the weather on the peninsula got worse and worse. On November 26th it began to rain heavily which, while welcomed initially by the troops soon became a problem as trenches and dugouts began to flood. On the 28th the temperature dropped precipitously and the men began to experience frostbit, many of them were still in their summer uniforms which were a poor defense against the biting winds and the frigid cold. Officers had to do their best to keep the men moving as much as possible, or they would freeze to death, Captain Thomas Watson discusses the state of his men “No possibility of sleep – the men who were unfortunate enough to sleep were mostly frostbitten by morning. It was like slave-driving. The men had to be kept awake – poor beggars, dead tired some of ’em – at the point of a good nailed boot. You simply had to keep stamping or moving in the freezing mud to avoid losing the use of your limbs. The Sabbath dawned, one of the most hopeless days ever dreamed of. Men died of exposure too tired, in some cases too lazy, to make the necessary effort to live. There was one saving grace – the wretched Turks were in a worse plight and small groups of them walked about collecting brushwood to try and make a fire. This afforded sport to those who were warm enough to shoot and we potted several.” By Early December the weather was thankfully warming slightly but it wouldn’t last. Not only was the weather horrible and getting worse, but the Turkish artillery was also becoming stronger every day. Bulgaria had entered the war on the side of the Central powers so it was easier to ship artillery and ammunitions from Germany and Austria. On December 4th meetings took place between the French and British about the future of the Gallipoli and Salonika fronts. The French were completely happy to abandon Gallipoli in favor of Saloniks. Monro and Birdwood were consulted again about the possibilities of keeping the peninsula. While these talks continued to happen the weather took another sharp turn for the worse. Finally, since it would be impossible to stay if the French left, the British government decided that evacuation should move forward. Helles would be maintained to restrict U-Boat and Ottoman naval access to the strait. The evacuation date for ANZAC and Suvla were now planned for December 19th. Shortly after this date was decided it was also decided to evacuate Helles in early January.

Now the problem was in actually getting the men off the peninsula, there were something like 83,000 men at Suvla and ANZAC combined. Their only chance was to evacuate by stealth. The plans were extremely detailed and had to be imaginative to keep the ruse up until the last possible moment. Not all of the men could be taken off in one night so the numbers were drawn down night after night and the men left behind became more and more vulnerable. More and more men would be taken off for the week before the final night and then on the final note the last few units would be evacuated. On the final night the units on the front would be thinned out in stages throughout the evening then the final units would fall back while being covered by small rear guards that would steal away at the last possible moment. This would be the method used at all three of the beaches when the time came. One of the keys to the entire operation was the introduction of quite periods on the front during the weeks before the evacuation. During normal fighting for the last 8 months there was constant gun and artillery fire and obviously on that last night the troops wouldn’t be able to do it. So for random nights leading up to the evacuation the British and ANZAC soldiers wouldn’t fire a single shot. This got the Turkish troops across from them used to quiet times and would plan an integral part in confusing them on the final nights. On December 18th, the second to last night of the evacuation 3 groups of men were taken off and they left just 10,000 men at Suvla and another 10,000 at ANZAC, this was the moment of greatest danger. If the Turkish commanders launched a concerted attack on the last night, it would almost certainly result in 20,000 casualties. On the last night at Suvla Lieutenant Clement Attlee was one of the last men to leave the lines around Lala Baba “We had 250 men and six machine guns. We went down the still very muddy road in the dark. I despatched Lindley and Wakeford with sixty men and two machine guns to hold the road between the Salt Lake and the sea, the remainder I disposed in the trenches as previously arranged and took post myself in a dugout with the Company Sergeant Major, signallers and orderlies. I was in telephone communication with General Headquarters. I had four officers of the East Lancashires on duty at the gaps in the wire which had been erected half way to the trenches. We soon began to get reports of parties passing through. This continued at intervals all through the evening and night. About 3.30, word came that the parties holding the wire half way had closed the gaps and were coming through. I warned our men to get ready. There followed a period of waiting. All this time everything was very peaceful though there were occasional shots to be heard from Anzac. Then we got the order to move. The men hustled up the trench, machine guns going first. I brought up the rear and found at the pier a few military police, General Maude and a few of the staff. We went on board lighters which seemed to go round and round. Flames shot up from the dumps of abandoned stores.” 135 days after the landings on August the 6th at 4AM on December the 20th, the last man stepped off from Suvla.

At ANZAC the situation was trickier since there was less space to work with and less wigle room for mistakes. Brigadier General John Monash would say them about the preparations and the plan for the evacuation at ANZAC “A list has been drawn up of the names of each of the last 170 officers and men, showing for each man the time that he has to leave the front trenches, and exactly what he has to do – whether to carry a machine gun, or its tripod, or its belts, or to throw a bomb, or to start an automatic rifle, or to light a fuse which will blow up a gun-cotton mine, or to complete a previously prepared barbed-wire entanglement on a track which might be used by the enemy. Every one of these 170 officers and men has been given a card, containing all these particulars so far as they apply to himself, and the exact route by which he is to reach the beach. All this means organisation and makes all the difference between success and failure.” There were also several mines set to explode right before the evacuation to slow down the Turkish response. Miners were even in the tunnels until the last possible moment to make noise since both sides had listening posts and would know if the digging stopped. They had even rigged up some self firing rifles that were designed to fire randomly after the troops left. Before these were used there was a skeleton crew of men in the trenches who were trying their damdest to make the Turkish troops believe they were still fully manned. Lieutenant Stanly Savige commanded a group of these men “Each man would take ten to fifteen fire bays as his sector. This demanded great individual activity, as each man, though able to fire from only one bay at a time, must maintain a regular fire from all. This fire must be maintained by firing from irregular bays and not bay after bay in succession. Everything must be done as normally carried out by the full garrison, even to throwing the occasional bomb. These plans were not difficult in making, but extremely difficult in their execution, as the average distance between the lines was only 15 yards, and, at places, considerably closer.” As the time drew closer for the last troops to leave the officers began to move along the lines to give the orders to pull back and one of these was Second Lieutenant George McIlroy “each officer, precisely at 2.40 a.m., moved along his front with instructions to slip quietly out to the rendezvous in Gun Lane, instead of the frenzied anxiety to depart which one might have expected, the popular idea of the moment seemed to be, ‘Just another shot at the old **** before we go!’” As the last man stepped off the beaches the last of the supplies that had not been able to be evacuated were demolished with explosives Private A.H. Edwards had a front row seat “We were taken off to a small transport, from which the Turks could be heard still firing at nothing, and as a grand finale we had a panoramic view of the wholesale destruction of stores on shore. Hundreds of hospital tents had been soaked in kerosene and fired; as the guy ropes burnt through the tents floated up like fire balloons; the tremendous conflagration being reflected in the sky.” ANZAC Cove was now vacant of ANZAC troops for the first time 7 months and 24 days. Against all odds Suvla and ANZAC had been evacuated with no casualties.

Now the forces at Helles found themselves as the sticky wicket, I hope I am using that croquet term correctly, because now the Turkish troops knew that the other forces were gone and were far more suspicious about the British plans. The troops at Helles also had the problem of having a further distance from the front lines to the beaches which increased the time in which the front lines would be empty before the men were off the shore. Before troops were evacuated, some were actually put ashore, with the 13th Division moving from Suvla to Helles to take the place of the exhausted 42nd Division. At the end of December there were 42,000 men on the Helles beach head and after the other beaches were gone all of the Turkish artillery that had been spread out were concentrated on the troops there. The plans weren’t that much different to get the troops off than at the other beaches, numbers would be slowly drawn down to be about 19,000 before the last two nights of the evacuation. The last night would be on January 8th. The British commanders did know that they had to throw some sort of wrench in the plan so after they began the quite periods of fire for the last few days of the year they threw the Turks a curveball. On New Years Eve they had every man and gun along the front fire 5 rounds rapid. This caused confusion among the Turkish commanders, who had become suspicious that the evacuation was imminent, so it served its purpose perfectly. In what was the next in a long line of smart decisions the French troops were evacuated first, it was decided that it would be far easier if all of the troops on the last few nights were of the same nationality and spoke the same language. On January the 1st the last of the French troops stepped off the peninsula. The Turkish commanders were becoming suspicious by the second to last night, when there were just 19,000 troops left, so they launched an attack. The attack, which could have been a great disaster for the British turned out to be a dud. There are even reports of Turkish troops mutinying at this moment. After so long of a fight at what could have been their greatest triumph G.J. Meyers reports that the troops along most of the front simply refused to attack. This gave the British the reprieve they needed. During the day on January the 8th there were very few troops left but Sapper Eric Wettern was one of them “That last day was rather queer. One would feel very much the same sensation on being left behind alone in a house that had been one’s home after the family and the furniture had gone. Two French 75s near our camp were very successfully trying to pretend that they were a battery of four guns. Apart from them, there was hardly a soul to be seen. Having nothing to do, we wandered round the line to have a last look round and take some photos. Ate as much as we could possibly tackle, to use up the surplus grub and spent a happy evening opening bully and jam tins and chucking them down a well, also biffing holes in dixies and generally mucking up any serviceable articles.” As the day turned into night the situation became more and more tense, as SubLieutenant Ivan Heald of the RND will explain “Never did man listen to sound so anxiously as I did, sitting alone in the old French dugout in the red glow of a charcoal brazier. I was fearful that any moment there might come clamouring in my ears the furious babbling splutter of rapid fire, which would mean an attack. But the hours wore on in a healthy sequence of occasional bombs and steady sniping, and half an hour before midnight I made a tour to the end of my line, where my commander, Freyberg, with Asquith and six men, were holding the chaos of mine craters and trenches which the French named Le Ravin de la Mort. They both decided there was time to finish some biscuits they had left in a dugout.” The last men of the RND in the line were engineers whose job was to slowly retreat, putting as many booby traps and obstacles as possible in the path of any Turkish advances. The troops who were leaving via V beach got off okay, although the weather was becoming a bit more intense. Unfortunately for the troops moving through W Beach the sea hit harder on the beach which made it more and more difficult to get troops off as the night wore on. The very last man left on Helles seems to have been a Lieutenant Ronald Langton-Jones of the Royal Navy who was in charge of the jetties were the destroyers were brought up to remove the men. At 4.30 he stepped off. The British had all escaped almost completely unscathed although again most of their stores were left behind. The evacuation was over, and it had been the most successful operation of the war. Detailed plans followed perfectly, coupled with a good helping of luck, had meant that what was an extremely dangerous operation was finished with no loss of life. The Gallipoli campaign, started on April 25th 1915 with the landings by the ANZAC was over early in the morning of January the 9th 1916.

The Gallipoli adventure had cost the British over 200,000 casualties all told, the french had lost almost 50,000. Turkish casualties are a bit harder to pin down, but they seem to be somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000. Regardless of how many men were lost on either side, the campaign came down to the fact that the British and French were never able to move more than 5 miles from their landing beaches. Peter Hart closes out his book Gallipoli with these words “The beautiful setting overlaid with the all-pervading stench of rotting corpses; the chivalry demonstrated by individuals on both sides amidst merciless wholesale slaughter; the futility of the cause for which seemingly ordinary men fought with near-superhuman courage and endurance: with these contrasts so evident it is inevitable that the study of Gallipoli will continue for years to come as each generation seeks to resolve the conundrum of how something so stupid, so doomed from the outset, can remain so utterly fascinating.” For the British, the primary sufferers of the campaign for the long months spent by the troops at Helles and Suvla, the operation was a great failure that would prompt a long and arduous investigation. It was remembered as a failure, similar to the battle of the Somme the next year. The men of the ANZAC are well remembered in their home countries. I had the great fortune of getting in contact with a listener, Daniel, who hails from Australia and when I asked him how he would describe what the landings meant he would have this to say “The campaign has had an incredible impact on shaping the Australian culture. This impact is not on the wane, but rather appears to be growing. I believe the impact has changed over time. This initial remembrance role took on an additional element of exhibiting a newly won national pride. Australia was a new country, with the colonies only federating into a unified country in 1900. Australians took pride in what was previously considered a colonial out-post of the Empire, showing that Australia could not only hold its own, but could out-perform most units of the much respected British Army. With the centenary this year, there is a great deal of coverage in the media, movies, books and so on. Even a ballot had to be held to limit the number of people attending commemorative services in Gallipoli. While Australia observes Remembrance Day like most of the Allied nations on the 11th of November, it is not a public holiday. However, ANZAC Day on [April the 25th] is a holiday with well-attended services held across the nation and with large overseas contingents attending services at Gallipoli and in France. Memorial services are held both at dawn, the same time as “the Landing”, as well as following the 11:00am “March”, where returned service men & women from current and past conflicts & peacekeeping duties, march through the main street of every Australian town. The Dawn Service takes place at the town war memorial. With no exaggeration, every town in the land has a war memorial erected after the Great War. The attendance at these services grows each year, and has a semi-sacred nature. To highlight this point, it should be noted that there are only two days in the year when pubs have to shut, those being Good Friday & ANZAC Day! Although on ANZAC Day they do open after the March completes ‘cause the diggers need a beer with their mates, of course! The day then changes from its reverent morning to a semi-celebratory afternoon, which involves the traditional soldier past-times of drinking, gambling & sporting events! This is seen as a very Australian and appropriate conclusion to the day.” At dawn on April the 25th 2015 there will be dawn services in Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, and all over the globe where veterans and citizens alike will stand in silence for two minutes in remembrance of sacrifices made by the troops, on both sides, that spent 9 months fighting, and dying, on the Gallipoli peninsula. In 1934 Kemal Ataturk, the former General, would deliver the following words to the first Australian, New Zealand, and British troops to visit the Gallipoli battlefields after the war. “Those heroes that shed their blood And lost their lives. You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side Here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, Who sent their sons from far away countries Wipe away your tears, Your sons are now lying in our bosom And are in peace After having lost their lives on this land they have Become our sons as well.”

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